Isaiah opens his book with five summary chapters in which he introduces his readers to the “Holy One of Israel,” a term he uses 25 times. The prophet first views the “Holy One” as that surpassingly awesome being whose greatness and moral goodness is beyond our human comprehension. Limited as we are by time and space, how can we grasp the concept of His eternal self-existence and simultaneous presence everywhere in His universe? Living as we do in an ever-changing world, how can we conceive of a being who always remains the same? Existing as we do with a mixture of good and evil within ourselves and everything around us, how can we understand absolute moral integrity?
Yet this Holy One of Israel, whose greatness and perfection are beyond our understanding, is knowable and near. Isaiah presents Him as reaching down to us, making Himself known to us, telling us what He expects from us, and relating with us when we humbly trust Him. He is knowable, near, and available. The dual truth of God’s transcendence (not bound by time and space) and immanence (everywhere present) is expressed beautifully in Isaiah 57:15.
This is what the high and lofty One says—He who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
Consider now two aspects of the Holy One of Israel as they are developed by Isaiah.
The Holy One Of Israel As Exalted And Unapproachable (6:1-7).
When good king Uzziah died after a long rule of 52 years, God gave young Isaiah a vision in which He revealed something of what it means for Him to be called the Holy One, the one being in all the universe who is incomprehensible and uncompromised in His greatness and moral goodness.
I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (6:1-4).
Isaiah was overwhelmed at the sight of the angelic beings covering their faces to shield their eyes from the blinding brightness of the throne and the sound of their chant. He was afraid he was going to die on the spot and was filled with a profound sense of his own sinfulness and that of his nation:
“Woe to me!” I cried, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (6:5).
In the Bible, those who have been given a vision of God’s majesty always react with awe and fear because they are overcome with a realization of their weakness, their smallness, and their sinfulness: Job (42:4-6), Daniel (10:7-19), Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-9), John (Rev. 1:9-18). And these were only visions! No human has ever seen the unveiled glory of God:
God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To Him be honor and might forever. Amen (1 Tim. 6:15-16).
No wonder even the most godly people experience a mingling of eager anticipation and uneasy apprehension at the thought of meeting God on the other side of death! How fitting are the words of Hebrews 12:28-29, “Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
The Holy One Of Israel As Near And Relevant (1:1–5:30).
As noted earlier, the “high and lofty One” not only lives in “a high and holy place,” but He is also “with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit” (57:15). He is not only the Holy One, He is the Holy One of Israel. He is near at hand, a God who is involved in the affairs of earth. He has revealed His will to mankind, holds people responsible for doing it, and acts in judgment when they rebel.
The Prophet’s Indictment.
The first five chapters of the book of Isaiah summarize the situation in Judah during the years after the vision of chapter 6. They vividly portray God’s nearness and relevance as the nation’s Lawgiver and Judge. In the first chapter, the prophet acts out the role of a prosecuting attorney, calling all the inhabitants of the universe to listen to his indictment of the citizens of Judah:
Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the Lord has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against Me…. Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt…. They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on Him” (1:2,4).
God had been a Father to the descendants of Abraham. He had brought them into existence through the miraculous birth of Isaac. The Israelites were His special people. But they had turned away from Him to worship the false gods of their neighbors. As a result, the ten northern tribes had already been taken into captivity by the Assyrians. And now the citizens of Judah (the two remaining tribes) were ripe for a similar fate. They too were rebellious children worshiping pagan deities.
In fact, their stubborn disobedience was already bringing God’s anger on them. In 1:5-8 the prophet describes the nation as resembling a person covered with loathsome bruises and sores. He says that her cities were burned by enemy invaders, and declares that “the daughter of Zion” (Jerusalem) stood helpless before the Assyrian armies, like a frail “hut in a field of melons.”
The remainder of the first five chapters continues to focus on God’s role as Lawgiver and Judge of the descendants of Abraham. But scattered throughout the rest of the book are reminders that God is also the Lawgiver and Judge of the nations. The judgments of chapters 13–23 are pronounced on Assyria, Babylon, Philistia, Moab, Syria, Cush, Edom, Egypt, Arabia, and Phoenicia for their sins, and further references to the wrath of the Holy One of Israel appear throughout the entire book.
Although God is beyond our comprehension, He is not a distant deity. He is near at hand, revealing Him-self and His will. He knows every thought and observes every act of every person. And He responds in judgment or mercy.
The People’s Rejection.
Although most people believe in the supernatural and in some kind of continued existence after death, a much smaller percentage accept the idea of a personal God who has established moral standards. Many in our day view God as an impersonal force or intelligence. And a large number who think of Him in personal terms place little value on the Scriptures. They see Him as a benevolent being who makes tolerance the ultimate virtue. Even atheists and agnostics have no quarrel with those who view God this way or speak of Him as an impersonal force or intelligence. What they indignantly reject is belief in a God who tells us how to live.
Our tendency to reject the God who made us for Himself is the message of the whole Bible. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul declared that mankind’s downward progression from worship of false gods into self-destruction began when people who knew God “neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him” (v.21). We acknowledge God as God when we show how thankful we are for all that He has done for us. Yet to be thankful is to acknowledge that we owe Him our lives.
Exodus 32 tells us how the Israelites, shortly after God had miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt and given them the awesome revelation of Himself at Mt. Sinai, used the brief absence of Moses as an occasion to make a golden calf and engage in the sensual Canaanite worship of Baal.
In Isaiah’s day, the wealthy and influential citizens of Judah were bringing some of the pagan practices of their neighbors into their worship. Isaiah 1:10-20 portrays God declaring that He detests their religion because they are using it as a cover for the harm they are doing to one another. He warns them that unless they change their ways, He will turn a deaf ear to their prayers. Then He pleads with them to change their thinking and their ways so that He can pour out His mercy on them.
This pattern of dire warning and gracious invitation continues throughout the book of Isaiah. But the national leaders, living in luxury and feeling secure in spite of the plight of the nation as described in chapter 1, continued to make and worship idols. They responded to Isaiah’s warnings with the mock request, “Let God hurry, let Him hasten His work so we may see it” (5:19). This aroused the anger of the prophet and led him to use scathing satire and searing sarcasm to highlight the absurdity of what they were doing. In the process, he also stated the obvious—that an idol is something made by a craftsman and is so lifeless that it must be designed so it “will not topple” (40:18-20). Instead of worshiping the eternal living God who is “Israel’s King and Redeemer,” they made idols in the form of man and bowed down before lifeless objects that could neither hear nor see nor think (44:6-20).
All of us are inclined to ignore the “Holy One of Israel” and substitute a god of our own making. For example, we are prone to worship:
- The material things we crave more than God, which are just as much idols as the material objects worshiped by the ancients.
- An impersonal force that won’t bother us with rules of conduct nor correct us when we do wrong, but also cannot help us or give us hope.
- A conjured-up personal but distant God who doesn’t communicate with us and is indifferent to our conduct.
The actions of Israel’s God are not surprising when we remember that the laws for life given by this Holy One are not the product of arbitrary decisions on His part. He didn’t simply decide on a whim to forbid idolatry, theft, deceit, murder, envy, and human revenge. Rather, His standards of human conduct spring from His very nature as a good, loving, and life-giving God. Some behaviors are wrong because they violate His inherent goodness—they are evil. Some behaviors are wrong because they deny His compassionate nature—they are hateful. Some behaviors are wrong because they threaten life—they are death-dealing. And few behaviors lead to death more profoundly than sexual immorality. Consider just two present-day holocausts—abortion and the AIDS epidemic.
God would be untrue to Himself and His own love if He didn’t care about our impurity, dishonesty, or cruelty. We can be glad that our Creator loves us enough to be angry about conduct marked by evil, hatred, and death, and that He is too good to be indifferent to it.
- In Isaiah’s reaction to his vision of God (6:1-5), we see something of God’s inexpressible goodness.
- In God’s reminder of His fatherly action (1:2,4), we see something of His heartbreak over our sin.
- In God’s preliminary judgments (1:5-8), we see His reluctance to punish severely.
- In God’s warnings and repeated appeals (1:5-8), we see His patient love.
- In the unbelievable cruelty of the Assyrians and Babylonians, we see the depths of human depravity.
- In Judah’s ingratitude (1:2,4), we see our own tendency to take God for granted.
- In Judah’s compromise with paganism, we see our own tendency to serve two masters.
- In the continued rebellion of Judah, in spite of God’s warning judgments, we see the blinding power of sin.